For Gates the US war in Iraq is over but cloud remains

Camp Ramadi, Iraq–US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday that America's war in Iraq is over but admitted that the outcome will remain "clouded" by the reason it was waged in the first place.

Asked by reporters at Camp Ramadi, an American base about 100 kilometres (80 miles) west of Baghdad, whether the United States was still at war in Iraq, Gates replied, "I'd say we're not. Combat operations have ceased."

"We are still going to work with Iraqis on counter-terrorism, we are still doing a lot of training and advising," said Gates, who arrived early Wednesday on an unannounced visit to Iraq.

"So I would say we've moved into the final phase of our engagement in Iraq," he added, after meeting US soldiers staying on to provide assistance to the Iraqi army.

President Barack Obama late Tuesday officially announced the end of the US combat mission in Iraq, where US forces are now down to around 49,700, for an advisory and training mission — with the last forces to leave in 2011.

Asked if the war that killed more than 4,400 US troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis was worth it, Gates said, "The problem with this war for many Americans is that the premise on which we justified going to war proved not to be valid.

"Even if the outcome is a good one from the standpoint of the United States, it will always be clouded by how it began."

Former US president George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 arguing that the country was rife with weapons of mass destruction — but in fact none were ever found.

Gates said he was "optimistic" about the future of Iraq, where the dictatorial regime of strongman Saddam Hussein was brought to an end by the US-led war.

"But there can be no disagreement with what has been achieved here by our men and women in uniform," said Gates, referring to the stuttering democratic process under way in Iraq.

"I am optimistic that these guys will continue to make progress."

Nearly six months after elections, Iraq remains mired in a political deadlock with little sign of a new government being formed any time soon.

Gates will later on Wednesday join US Vice President Joe Biden in presiding over a ceremony marking the change of US military command in Iraq.

General Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq since taking over from General David Petraeus in 2008 is stepping down to be replaced by Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin.

The ceremony to take place at the al-Faw Palace near Baghdad airport will mark Operation New Dawn — the name given to the US military's new "advise and assist" mission.

Speaking to troops at Camp Ramadi who will be part of that mission, Gates did not rule out the possibility of re-negotiating with Iraq a November 2009 security agreement that paved the way for the end of the combat mission.

"Whether or not the question is reopened, I think we'll have to await the formation of a new Iraqi government. We'd be willing to look at that but again it would have to come at the initiative of the Iraqis," he said.

Obama had vowed to get American combat troops home from Iraq and has pulled nearly 100,000 soldiers out — even as he escalated the war in Afghanistan.

On Tuesday he warned that although US combat was ending, violence in Iraq would not and "extremists will continue to set off bombs, attack Iraqi civilians and try to spark sectarian strife."

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Tuesday told the nation in a televised speech that the army and police were now in charge and that he was confident the last US forces would leave as planned in 2011.

"This is a day that will remain in the memory of all Iraqis. Today, Iraq has become a sovereign and independent country," he said.

Officials figures released Wednesday for the death toll in August showed that 426 Iraqis were killed in political violence in Iraq — a grim reminder that bloodletting continues to plague the country.

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